A healthy neighborhood can lower the obesity level of its residents

Neighborhoods that include restaurants and businesses that support healthy eating choices can make a “measurable” difference in the battle against obesity, according to a new study led by researchers at the Drexel University School of Public Health.

Dr. Amy Auchincloss, an assistant professor at the Philadelphia-based institution, and her colleagues conducted a five-year study analyzing the impact that a neighborhood could have on an individual’s health.

They found that “significantly” fewer people became obese when they lived within a mile of healthier food environments compared to those without access to such places. Previous studies have demonstrated that healthier, less-obese men and women are more likely to live in neighborhoods that had access to supermarkets and fresh foods, and to a lesser extent, in neighborhoods that are walkable.

“Interpretation of results from cross-sectional analyses is limited since that type of study can’t determine whether weight gain preceded the neighborhood exposure,” explained Auchincloss.

She and co-authors from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the University of California Berkeley, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Gramercy Research Group detail their findings in a recent edition of the journal Obesity.

The researchers claim that their research improves upon previous studies of neighborhood risk factors and obesity, as they selected participants who were not obese, and tracked which subjects gained considerable amounts of weight during a five-year follow-up period. They also took into account individual factors, which could influence both a person’s health status and the choice of which neighborhood he or she resides in.

Auchincloss and her colleagues analyzed the health data of over 4,000 adults living in six different U.S. cities. The study participants were followed over the course of five years as part of a larger Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, and answered questions regarding the areas that surrounded their homes. Those questions involved how easy it was to walk in the neighborhood, and to what extent healthy foods were available nearby.

Over the course of the study, approximately 10 percent (406) of the study participants became obese. Healthy food environments were associated with lower obesity levels, even after accounting for age, gender, income, education, and other factors. The walkability of the neighborhood was also linked to lower obesity, though the researchers note that this association was not independent of a healthy food environment.

“Healthy food environments and walkability are often correlated in urban areas which is why it can be hard to assess their independent effects,” Auchincloss said.

“Programs including farmer’s markets and subsidies for fresh food vendors to locate in disadvantaged areas, are the types of adaptations cities and towns can make to create healthier communities – without putting the burden on individuals to have to move to a new neighborhood in order to adopt a healthier lifestyle,” she added.

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